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Tom Hanks discusses filming in the harsh Chicago winter & the Paul Newman intimidation factor

"So what was it like working with Paul Newman?"

This is not the kind of question you learn at the Great Interviewers' School. To call it "basic" is a kindness. But any question can be redeemed by a good answer, and Tom Hanks has one."Once you get past the intimidation factor, it was a great experience."

You were intimidated by working with Paul Newman? 

"Oh, landy! Yes, oh yes. You just can't have the history of going to the movies that I've had and not be. I remember going to see 'Hud.' And 'The Hustler.' And wasn't there a movie like 'Apache?' "

"Fort Apache, the Bronx?"

"Not that one. There was one where he was a half-breed. I want to say 'Honda.' 

" 'Hombre.' " 

" 'Hombre!' That was a big movie for me."That was his H period, I said. 'Hud,' 'Hustler,' 'Hombre.'"

Seeing those movies was a big time for me. So to be there on the set with him ... No. 1, he's much taller than you think he's going to be. And No. 2, those eyes. The first take on the first day, I'm not thinking about my work, I'm thinking, 'Holy cow! I'm in a movie looking into Paul Newman's eyes. How did this happen?'

"There's a theory, I say, that no one seems like a real movie star to you unless they were a star when you were still a kid growing up. If they come along after you're 21 or 22, then they're just your contemporaries. But if you saw them in grade school ..."

The theory is right," Hanks says. "Al Pacino in a room, I don't know what to say to Mr. Pacino. Sean Connery, when I first met him I believe I called him 'Commander.' There's just no way around it. I think it's like when you're a freshman in high school, and the upperclassmen look like they're 32 years old, and it isn't until you get up there you realize, what was I thinking? We're all just a bunch of stupid kids."

But Tom Hanks was definitely in a movie with Paul Newman, the upperclassman: "Road to Perdition," which opens Friday. Hanks was in Chicago for the movie's world premiere, which filled the Chicago Theater on June 25. He stars in the movie as an enforcer for the Chicago mob, and Newman is the boss who treats him like his own son, up to a point--and then crosses him. In the movie, Hanks has two sons, Newman has a son, and then emotionally Hanks is Newman's son, so there are three sets of fathers and sons, and a lot of room for betrayal.

"One thing I wondered, reading the script," Hanks said, "is that you have to wonder, in a Catholic community in 1931, why they only have one or two children. You wonder if they don't feel a curse. Given their money and the theology there should be six or seven, maybe eight, kids running around. Nope. It's just these tough, cold men. Do the women in town think they're cursed?"

The theme of tortured and disintegrating families is not new to the director, Sam Mendes, who won the Oscar in 1999 for his "American Beauty." That one starred Kevin Spacey as a man whose family drives him a little nuts, and vice versa. I talked to your son Colin Hanks a few months ago, I said, when he was starring in "Orange County." So there's a son going into the family business, but "Road to Perdition" is about a father who does not want his son in the business.

Did your own fatherhood inform what you do in the movie?

"I think there are periods of time when you're a father," he said, "when truly the only thing you have is regrets. All the wonderful qualities of your kids are mysteries to you and all you can see is the way you've scarred or burned or somehow neglected those kids. The feeling passes, but it's true. If you have omitted a moment, if you have bypassed a day, you'll never get it back."

This was your third movie filmed in Chicago, after "Nothing in Common" and "A League of Their Own."

"And a little of 'Sleepless in Seattle.' But this was the first time in the winter. It was so cold. We were doing a scene with real snow and fake snow and rain. You do that all night long and it's tough. That's why those coats are so big and heavy, and why the hats have such big brims. They dress for the climate with a Depression-era Gortex sensibility."

Talk of Chicago reminds me of the current box office hit "My Big Fat Greek Wedding." It began as a one-woman show by Nia Vardalos, a Second City actress who talked about being Greek and single at 30.

The movie was produced by Hanks and his Greek-American wife, actress Rita Wilson.

"Nia put this show on and cobbled together the money for an ad the size of a postage stamp in the Los Angeles Times," Hanks aid, "and Rita said she had to go see the show. She came back saying it was hilarious and I had to see it. And we loved it and Nia had already been working on a screenplay, so we helped her turn it into a movie--and if you look at it proportionally, it is one of the most profitable movies of the year, because if cost X money to make, it's grossed four times X. If you look at it from the percentages--hey, it's right up there with 'Gone With the Wind.' "

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